Volkswagen and college basketball unionization efforts highlight need for stronger union comms

Recent unionization news puts the intersection of labor relations and comms around union actions in focus.

In a world where employee needs and expectations shift rapidly, it should come as no surprise that comms pros outside of the corporate comms function are increasingly tasked with crafting strategies to address unions and labor relations..

While the news of the Dartmouth men’s basketball team voting to unionize and workers at Volkswagen plant in Tennessee deciding to do the same might not seem like they’ve got a ton to do with one another, they share some common threads. In both cases, the petitioners at both Dartmouth and the Volkswagen factory reached out to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to work with them on authorizing the union votes. But the responses from the larger organizations are what you need to pay attention to here.

After the NLRB recognized the Dartmouth players as employees, the university’s response contested the fact that they were employees at all. For those not familiar with college sports, there’s been a decades long debate over whether college players should be paid since schools make money off their on-court pursuits, resulting in the current name, image and likeness rules instituted in 2021 that allow players to earn money.

According to ESPN:

The school could potentially continue fighting the idea that athletes are employees up through the Supreme Court — a process that could take years to complete. In a statement Tuesday, the university strongly disagreed with players being classified as employees.

“For Ivy League students who are varsity athletes, academics are of primary importance, and athletic pursuit is part of the educational experience,” the statement said. “Classifying these students as employees simply because they play basketball is as unprecedented as it is inaccurate.”

Compare that with Volkswagen’s official response to the unionization effort, in which the car manufacturer said in an emailed statement that it would support a union vote, going as far to say, “We respect our workers’ right to a democratic process and to determine who should represent their interests.”

Two similar movements, two very different responses from comms.

A wider movement

If you’ve got the sense that labor movements are on the rise, you’re not wrong. A Pew Report stated that 2023 saw more labor-related work stoppages and strikes than any of the previous 30 years. Our own Allison Carter summed employer comms situation up well in piece for Ragan this January:

“It doesn’t matter how well you think you’re treating employees if they don’t feel like they have control and a voice. Think of it in the context of our current economic picture: By most measures, the American economy is doing great, but many don’t feel that it is. So come the demands for change.”

Carter went on to say that comms needs to be in the room for union discussions in order to capture the right message to disseminate. Tone matters, and a false step can put your comms effort many steps back. So with that in mind, what are the right levers to pull when you’re dealing with a unionization push?

Steps in the right direction

Even if a unionization effort takes your organization by surprise, there are some definitive steps you can use as a guide to ensure that your communications work both remains on track and rings authentic to your audience. These practices should line up with the NLRB’s reminders that state employees have the right to form, join, or assist a union. That includes communicating about a union as well.

  • First, ensure that you acknowledge the rights of workers in your organization to unionize. But make sure your statements aren’t empty words. If they are, people might see right through them and view your stance as antagonistic to the workers that are unionizing, which is a great way to kill company culture and reputation. Sometimes it’s just better to support the legal rights of workers to unionize and not say much. In this case, less can be more. Additionally, ensure that you aren’t restricting workers’ right to communicate about unionization. If they’re allowed to talk during work, they’re allowed to talk about unionizing.
  • Second, be sure that your communications align with your organization’s mission and values. Learn about what the forming union is aiming to accomplish and work to see how that fits into your company’s culture. Regardless of the action the workers take, it’ll make it easier for you to communicate well with employees if you know what’s important to them.
  • Lastly, make sure that you and your leaders are prepared to talk about labor movements. This trend is a burgeoning one and doesn’t seem likely to fade any time soon. If you want to communicate authentically and effectively about unions, get ready now and save yourself a whole lot of on-the-fly work in the future.

Sean Devlin is an editor at Ragan Communications. In his spare time he enjoys Philly sports and hosting trivia.

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